Harford's state-of-the-art waste-to-energy plant, opened in 1988, has failed to keep pace with the county's growing mountains of trash, forcing officials to divert some garbage to the county's central landfill.

The $27 million plant at Aberdeen Proving Ground has reached its annual maximum of 116,000 tons one to two years before expected.

County administrators say the plant must be expanded.

The plant, built to extend the life of the county central landfill while providing steam to the U.S. Army, needs an additional combustion system that would raise its daily trash consumption by 125 tons, to about 440tons.

The price tag: $10 million to $15 million, says the plant manager.

The county government and the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, a quasi-government agency that financed and overseesthe plant, are banking on the U.S. Army's agreeing to buy the additional steam produced by burning the increased trash load to help foot the bill. Other details of possible financing have yet to be worked out, county officials said.

William F. Davidson, the plant's project manager, said the county, the Army and the waste authority have begun negotiations on the expansion. But, he added, the Army's potentialneed or desire to buy more steam remains uncertain.

"We got a good facility that's good for the environment and has exceeded expectations and provided a lot of good steam," Davidson said.

"We just have too much trash. Now, we have to convince the Army they need more steam. That's a critical path."

As a result of the unique agreementthat took three years to work out, the county now pays the authority$22.47 a ton to burn the county's trash down to an ash. The ash is trucked to the landfill for dumping.

The system reduces the landfill's load to 10 percent of its original volume, Davidson said.

The Army paid the waste authority about $4 million for about 426.5 million pounds of steam in a year span ending in September, said John Yaquiant, an APG spokesman.

Yaquiant said officials at the base have expressed interest in buying more steam, for additional existing buildings and others being planned.

But, he added, Army officials have declined to provide more specific numbers on potential steam needs because of ongoing negotiations with the county and the waste authority.

The trash the plant can't burn goes directly to the Scarboro landfill. But that too is filling quickly -- a year before expected -- and needs a $2.5 million expansion, county officials say.

County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann said the county's rapid, unprecedented growth in recent years, coupled with past failures to plan for disposing of the ensuing avalanche of trash, has left government administratorsscrambling to find and pay for solutions.

"There is a price for growth, sometimes a heavy price," the first-term executive said in an interview last week.

Rehrmann also points out that the trash crunch will prove an even more daunting challenge, as it comes amid declining revenues, a recession and widespread anti-tax clamor.

Of the landfill expansion, for instance, she said, "A $2.5 million bill is pain and suffering when you're talking about our budget."

Repeating a pledge to hold the line on property taxes, she said taxpayers wouldsee no increase in their tab to foot the bill for dealing with the estimated 156,000 tons of waste a year.

She added, however, that the steep price tag would force some hard choices come budget time.

Fed by the boom in housing construction, the trash toll for Harford rose to a record 156,000 tons in the last 12 months, Davidson said.

"The growth has just been so explosive, we reached our capacity longbefore expected," said George Harrison, media spokesman for Rehrmann.

"It's time to improve our efforts, to improve our planning. There has never in the past been a real plan for trash that ties in with the land-use plan. People just came up with land-use plans and then worried about the trash as the demand came up."

Between 1985 and 1990, for instance, the county's population grew twice as fast as projected, to more than 182,000, Harrison said.

In the decade that ended last year, Harford's population grew nearly 25 percent, Harrison said.

Hoping to ease the burden on both the landfill and the waste-to-energy plant, county officials are working out details on recyclingand will soon issue a report proposing a Harford program. Ideas include a composting plant and a non-profit recycling agency.

Rehrmannsaid Harford's trash woes provide but one tangible example of growing pains in the county.

The population boom also will require a newschool each of the next five years and a waste-water treatment plantexpansion, to be paid for largely by developers, whose $1,600 surcharge on new homes could more than double, Rehrmann said.

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